Breaking Down Vaporwave

Ah, the age-old question: what the heck is vaporwave? Starting out as an experimental music genre, it has since snowballed into a brand-new internet culture. So, let’s analyse the whole thing starting with…

What is vaporwave?

First emerging on the scene in the early 2010s, vaporwave can be described as the love child of cyberpunk and plunderphonics. A mish-mash of repetitive musical and audio samples taken exclusively from the 80s and 90s, heavily layered together and distorted to create ambient, and sometimes eerie, music. Its (arguably post-ironic) use of incidental music from commercials in the late 80s and 90s, influence from late 70s Japanese city pop and 80s pop, integrated with satirical commentary of popular culture, and even late capitalism make vaporwave especially unique. Above all, its music seems to be self-aware and almost meta; Its repetitive use of loops, pitch shifts and liberal manipulation of time signature creates dreamy music, which while emulates that of elevator music or smooth jazz, pokes fun at its formulaic approach to producing music as well.

Because of the genre’s heavy themes of nostalgia, it has given way to a certain visual aesthetic (also rather obnoxiously stylised as A E S T H E T I C), which go hand in hand with the music. The art takes inspiration from the garish bright colour schemes of the 80s, Japanese art and anime, the original computer motifs (like the original Windows graphic design), Roman busts, palm trees, coupled with glitch effects seen in webpunk art. Pinks, blues, teal and purples are prevalent in the album covers or music videos. Most imagery appropriating consumerist material such as creating art similar to advertisements. It would suggest that vaporwave is not only providing social and political commentary through the use of music but also through its visual components, creating a new genre of aesthetic commentary.

What is vaporwave trying to say?

As if vaporwave wasn’t strange enough, it has taken up the interest of academics who write papers trying to dissect the true meaning of the genre. While it’s impossible to guarantee the intentions of all vaporwave music producers, most academics and listeners agree that the music and aesthetics produced for the microgenre is used to critique consumerist media. They do so by fully embracing it into their music, using cheesy music from advertisements in the 80s and 90s and stretching it to create something melancholic and otherworldly. The juxtaposition of these seem to be a critique of the faith that the public had in capitalism during the era. The dreamy nature of vaporwave, they suggest, explores the trance-like state people lived in during the 80s and 90s; the idealism for a techno-utopian life in the future, which was a product of the capitalistic society, and the disappointment in the present reality for falling short of that empty promise. It both romanticises the “ignorance is bliss” attitude of the time, while criticising its ignorance.

Who listens to this stuff?

Just by the nature of the genre, its audience is incredibly niche. Its appeal as a subversive genre of music attracts a more “underground” group of listeners from sites like SoundCloud, Bandcamp and Reddit. Whether the listeners of this genre do so ironically or not is unclear, however, vaporwave seems to invoke a collective feeling of nostalgia in its audience. A desire for regression into the “good old times”, even though most of the listeners may have been born after the era which vaporwave references. It would seem as though vaporwave exists to create the feeling of “ersatz nostalgia”, meaning the feeling of being reminiscent without the attached memories present, and for people who want to experience it.

How does vaporwave affect the music industry?

The emergence of this microgenre is only one of many examples as to how the internet is revolutionising musical practices. Interestingly, vaporwave has flourished despite the ever-strict copyright laws in place, considering the nature of the music. Vaporwave artists are unhindered by modern copyright laws, repurposing the original source material however they choose. Even sometimes releasing the music for free online, again subverting traditional music practices performed by large corporate labels. Also, vaporwave artists value anonymity; normally produce works under aliases. Their names still adhering to certain stylistic motifs that exist in vaporwave by incorporating Japanese characters or using names that sound like corporate brands. It is obvious that vaporwave has only been able to be birthed and thrive due to the internet, however, is the only internet genre prevalent enough to carry along other, newer practices which counter mainstream music production.

How is it still a thing?

Vaporwave has thrived for the reason that it is no longer simply a style of music, but that it has become a subculture, an avant-garde political movement, an art style, and yes, an A E S T H E T I C. It’s clear that vaporwave has influenced not only underground cyber cultures but continues to inspire new subgenres. Some examples of more experimental, forms of subgenres created directly from vaporwave would be Simpsonswave and mallsoft. Simpsonswave is melancholic vaporwave, with audio samples from the show The Simpsons, while set to a compilation of edited sad scenes from the cartoon and only to be played in conjunction with each other (otherwise it’s just sad vaporwave apparently), and mallsoft, which is chilled vaporwave created specifically to be played in abandoned malls. It seems that every new subgenre produced as a result of vaporwave breathes new air back into it, and it doesn’t seem to be losing any momentum anytime soon.

Okay, I got it. Should I give it a listen?

Ever wanted to feel like you’re alone at a rooftop bar, overlooking Tokyo city while sipping a martini after a hard day as a Japanese businessman in the 80s, basking in the neon lights of the city? This is for you. All music should transport you to another world, and vaporwave does this best. Close your eyes and live someone else’s life, at least for a few minutes.

Tuesday 10th of September, 2019

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